Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Price of Produce

My nursing school clinicals were almost over. I'd been assigned to the youngest patient on our floor. At seventeen, he was technically still considered pediatric, but they'd placed him on our adult floor. The vibrance of his youth was worn away on his warm-toned skin, leaving dark shadows under each eye. I wasn't sure why he was so quiet - was it shyness, the typical insecurities of adolescence, or depression because of his disease? Juan had been diagnosed with leukemia just days ago.

Both the disease and the chemo sapped most of his energy, but somehow I convinced him to walk around in the halls while the nurse's aid made his bed. As he got up, I noticed a large quantity of his thick black hair clinging to his pillow. Although hair loss is a normal side effect from chemo, seeing this beautiful young man's hair piled limply where his head had lain hit me like a piano fallen on my chest. I turned and watched him slowly make his way out of the room like an 80-year-old man.

Most of our leukemia patients are in their 50's or older. The younger ones (in their 20's) usually come in with Hodgkin's, which is usually easily curable. Juan wasn't so lucky.

I tried hard to make him smile during the two days I worked with him, but I never succeeded. It broke my heart to see this handsome young man looking so forlorn. I refused to give up so soon. Over the next two days I had off, I tried to think up ways to make him laugh. I had a plan. The next day I came into work, however, he was gone.

ME: What happened to Juan? He still had at least another week of chemo to go. Where is he?

Heather: Oh, he didn't make it.

ME (The pitch of my voice rising in fear): What do you mean "he didn't make it?"

Heather: His cardiovascular system couldn't handle the chemo. He died yesterday.

That piano that had hit my chest while in his room? That was a feather compared to what hit me at that moment.

Juan's family was in the States illegally. Juan's family had avoided medical care in fear of deportation. After Juan had lost 30 pounds and looked like skin and bones, they worried. His mother fed him extra from her share of every meal to help him gain weight, hoping that would fix him.

But as days passed, Juan started getting nose bleeds that wouldn't stop. Bruises popped up unexpectedly. And then the fevers and chills came. Juan's bed shook with the force of his shakes (or rigors as we call them in medicalese). There was no doubt; he needed a doctor. Even though they didn't have the money to pay a doctor, even though the doctor might turn them away because they were illegal immigrants, or worse - they also might get sent home to even less medical care, their son was seriously ill and his health was worth the risk of deportation.

As a migrant farm worker, Juan's family had watched other children die of leukemia. The pesticides on the nearby produce permeated the air they breathed, clung to the clothes that Juan's father wore to work and brought back home to him. They'd come here to find a better life, but instead they'd lost a life.

When I go to the grocery store and am tempted by the cheaper prices of the non-organic produce, I think of Juan.

Juan, may you rest in peace. And may you finally smile again.

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